Voice and Voice Training

If the human voice is capable of all kinds of sounds, and has a wide range of pitches and volumes (as sitting at any playground for a couple of hours will prove to you), then what happens to that ability and why do some people exhibit so much more of that than others when they outgrow childhood?

Let’s take a look at the average American (but could be almost any nationality) kid. Runs, jumps, plays, falls down, cries, gets up, laughs, makes faces and turns into various imaginary animals, monsters, aliens, grown-ups, and alternate selves, yells, screams, giggles, grunts, roars, gurgles, yodels and does who knows what else with voice and body. Then the child gets “self-conscious” and stops because adulthood looms. Correct behavior encroaches (at various ages) and spontaneity subsides. Vocal expression also shrinks, unless the child is doing some kind of singing, in which case it might survive a bit more.

If, however, you go to performances or listen to music written by today’s living composers who deliberately do things with the voice that are “not-traditional”, you find out that there are a lot of people out there, some with advanced degrees even, who think the human voice doesn’t have to shrink or fit in a box. In fact, you find that many vocal artists wouldn’t begin to entertain the notion that you have to confine yourself in any way in order to be considered “good”.

This blog entry is inspired by having just attended the 4 hour marathon retrospective of Meredith Monk today at the Whitney Museum. It took a look back at Meredith’s performances, the first one being done there was in 1971. There was an entire new generation of young vocalists up there with some of the other “senior” artists and they were all having a ball. A few are operatically trained, some are dancers, and some are musicians, and all of them all singing really wild, inventive, and YES, vocally taxing stuff, but NO ONE lost their voice and no one was being vocally damaged, since Meredith herself is very careful about how she sings and what she asks, respectfully, others to sing. You might think, at first hearing if you were not familiar with her style, or this kind of music generally, that going abruptly from one register to another or from one pitch range to another, or one volume to another, or making gutteral, nasal, glottal, unsteady, unpleasant sounds would automatically be “harmful” but if you did have that thought, it would be WRONG. The performers who sing with Ms. Monk are very talented, highly trained, intelligent and mostly New York artists who are mostly self-employed free-lancers. They are not going to ruin their throats for Ms. Monk or anyone else, as they would be out of work for quite a while, and maybe could get injured seriously enough to be out of work as a singer forever. Since I have been Ms. Monk’s voice coach for nearly 30 years, I know how careful these singers are with their voices even though what they sing sounds like they aren’t being careful at all.

Beware. And if you are a singer, or a teacher of singing, and you think that singing outside a certain set of parameters will harm you in some way, think again. Singing anything shouldn’t prevent you from doing something else. If how you sing is based on fear of harming or losing your voice/technique/high notes/control/expressiveness,etc., I will suggest that you don’t have much depth in your singing to begin with, and it wouldn’t be nearly as a big loss as you imagine if you were to let it go. Think about that.

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One thought on “Voice and Voice Training”

  1. I totally agree but I will be a devil’s advocate here. For someone of such amazing experience and longevity, I know you understand how important it is to be balanced not only in singing but in what we write about singing. The human voice has about three octaves of modal range plus some pulse (fry) range and a practically endless falsetto (i.e. flute/whistle) range.

    However just because every human being at his/her best could make use of this potential does not mean that every singer (even the well-trained ones) have trained the flexibility to be able to execute such feats without concern. Just as it is short-sighted to limit singers to standard classical voice-typing, it is also dangerous to expect that any singer can perform the feats you mention without being first trained for them. Some singers come into professional singing without losing the child-like qualities found on the playground. But the majority have already lost much of that through early speaking habits that are not conducive to that particular singers vocal balance. Habitual imbalance is the enemy of flexible singing. And such imbalance can be trained in many subconscious ways, particularly speaking and early vocal models that are inappropriate to the singer’s nature.

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